Inbox by Google: same-same but different

Inbox is a new mail client that The Verge calls “a total reinvention of email from Google.” Which is a bit of an exaggeration, but does demonstrate the excitement many in the tech press have for it.

Inbox is invite only for now; fortunately, Google sent me one and I’ve been using it exclusively the last few days.

How is it? There’s a saying in South East Asia: “Same-same but different.” Countries here have many similarities — ingredients used for cooking, the mix of urban sprawl and vast farmlands, the laidback, friendly culture — but each country has its own twist on things.

Inbox won’t change your life. It’s a pretty client with a few interesting ideas that are more incremental than revolutionary. The potential is certainly there for something truly new and for now, it’s same-same but different.

Inbox is more than just an experiment for Google. The beta is on Android, iPhone and web and all feel fully native. Google put serious work into Inbox.

Inbox is based on Gmail and retains its key concepts, i.e. conversation-based threads and tabs that automatically organize your emails around Promos, Updates, Social messages, Forum posts and finally email you actually need to read. We previously dedicated a whole post to Gmail, which you can find here.

Instead of tabs, Inbox aggregates those categories as a line item in your mailbox. Tap or click to expand; you can still access categories any time via a slide out drawer panel. I’m ambivalent about this change — it’s less structured but more discoverable for newbies.

Inbox adds new categories which I really appreciate: Travel, Purchases and Finance.

I’m planning to go on a big holiday this Christmas and it was great to see Inbox find all the emails to and from hotels and airlines. I wish the Travel category would’ve also caught all my holiday’s restaurant reservations, and that’s something I’m sure will get incorporated at some point.

Purchases worked exactly as you’d expect it to; online receipts of purchases are collected there. Very useful.

Bank and credit card statements appear in Finance.

Inbox looks great aesthetically — much prettier than the current Gmail app. I’m curious to see how the Android Lollipop version of Gmail compares to Inbox; but as of right now there’s no question Inbox looks better.

One visual tweak that I like, don’t like is the emphasis on attachments in Inbox. Emails with images are displayed with a thumbnail on your email feed. This improves the visual presentation and can be useful too as it’s easy to quickly find those emails with attachments. However, what I don’t like is that emails without images become naturally de-emphasized even if they’re actually important.

Inbox also brings the “email as a task list” concept that Mailbox made trendy. Mailbox — which was quickly acquired by Dropbox — is a client that treats emails like a list of things to do. Every time you’ve “done” an email, you swipe it away into a separate pile. The goal apparently is to get an inbox absent of any emails. You can also “snooze” an email if you want to process it later.

I never really liked this idea. Not with Mailbox and still not with Inbox. Swiping everything just seems like a lot of work, especially with the kind of email volume I get.

I also don’t like it because, say you’ve replied to someone so you swipe away but actually you need to follow-up if that person doesn’t reply in a timely manner. If the conversation is not there — out of sight, out of mind — I may not remember to follow-up. Sure, you can swipe into a separate, custom “Emails to Follow-Up” box, but that’s unwanted complexity. Or you might choose not to swipe away at all, but this goes against the zero inbox idea.

Bottom line, I prefer to simply scan. What’s not important gets no additional treatment; what’s important gets a star in Gmail (or a flag in Outlook). This is a much more efficient system than the one in Inbox if the majority of your emails aren’t important — which is true for me and I suspect is true for most of you.

Swiping away every unimportant email takes more time than starring just the ones that are important.

Fortunately, you can stick to the latter system with Inbox. Instead of starring, you pin; later, you can toggle a switch to just view the emails you’ve pinned, just like you can with the ones you’ve starred in Gmail.

Same-same, but different.

If you’d like to give Inbox a spin, leave a comment and I’ll select three at random for an invite. Apparently, these are being sold on eBay for $200 — but the Cornerplay will be giving our invites away for free. 🙂

22 thoughts on “Inbox by Google: same-same but different

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